Archive for the ‘Nick’s Notes’ Category

So, What’s Next?

Monday, January 9th, 2017

by Nick P. Miller

Knowing that I will be retiring on 15 January 2017, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I’m leaving behind after 43 years of consulting.  And what’s next?  How will I replace the challenge and excitement, (without the stress I hope) and what do I really want to do when there are no longer the time demands and obligations to get “work” done?

Somewhere during my occasional reflection on retirement, I remembered how I felt graduating from college.  After finals and before the ceremonies, the engineering faculty held a dinner in the faculty club for the members of Tau Beta Pi.  I remember the candle-lit dinner and a talk by one of my favorite professors.  His topic was a point he often made in lectures:  there’s a “pedestrian” method for solving a problem and an “equestrian” method.  I loved that concept (one that I realize Dick Bolt subscribed to as well).  The concept was emblematic of the education I got in college – go for the essence of the problem; avoid getting wrapped up in details that don’t contribute to the solution.  (I admit this approach is not always easy or obvious, and in fact, its challenge is partly why I like it.) At any rate, I was feeling pretty good about my college experience.  After the dinner, back alone at the apartment that I shared with two other guys, I thought:  “It’s over.  It was great. It was not without some set-backs, but I did my best. So, what’s next?”

That kind of sums up how I feel about retiring.  Though my career was not without missteps, I loved the basic work and the overall objective of trying to make people’s lives a little better, even if it was only in being an objective voice that recognized their problem.  Just as important were the wonderful, varied and unusual people I met, worked with, worked for, and those with whom I shared a dedication to the discipline of acoustics and noise control.  Starting HMMH with Andy, Bob and Carl was certainly just as important and as satisfying as was the work.  I learned so much about people, what motivates them, what upsets them and what helps them do their work.

I don’t want to give the impression that I fell easily into any of this.  Getting used to consulting and being comfortable initially took at least five years, and really cruising probably took ten to fifteen years.  Adding some humor and occasional light-heartedness another five.  That leaves another 23 years when everything was pretty cool.  I never thought of my career that way before now, but that’s about right.  Weird, huh – half the career getting into it?  I’d have to say that the need to support a family, dedication to the people I worked with and led, and perhaps a bit of grit helped me stick it out.

To answer my initial question.  I know two things – I have to have a routine, and I need variety.  Here’s the list I am building: take violin lessons again (I played for nine years as a kid), exercise at least five days a week, clean the excess stuff out of the house we’ve lived in for thirty-eight years, finish the wood trim on our Maine house, cook dinner for my wife and me (and maybe a couple of guests) at least once a week, spend more time than 20 minutes at breakfast reading, play Scrabble with my wife at least once a week and maybe I’ll beat her someday, check out volunteer possibilities in town, spend more time with family and friends, and learn a new craft, like how to make Windsor chairs.  Of course, I’ll do the usual puttering around the house to keep things in shape.

The reason I am revealing this list is to increase the chance that I’ll actually follow-through, so that if anyone asks me how it’s going, I won’t embarrass myself by having to make excuses.

So there you are.  My last blog on the HMMH website.  If I have more to say, I may put reflections on LinkedIn.  I don’t expect to disappear entirely however.  I’ve made too many life-long friends not to stay in touch.

Best of luck and good health to all.  Cheerio!

Of Noise and Nature

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

By Nick P. Miller

I wonder how many people experience the sense of peace and uninterrupted reflection that comes from the “quiet” of nature, unaffected by human sounds.  I know I was aware of how special it seemed when I was vacationing as a kid with my family on Lake Champlain and walked to the shore in the evening.  I heard only rippling of the water – nothing else.  Every time I’m in a place of such quiet, whether a National Park or early Sunday morning at home, I’m awed.

We’re usually not much aware of the sounds around us; so many are worth ignoring.  I think you need an attentive awareness of what you can hear to really register the effect of quiet.  However, if we pause and listen for a minute or two, the multiplicity of sounds may be surprising, especially in a city.  In fact, that’s the only time most people notice the sounds that they can hear – when they stop and reflect.  For most of the time, we tune out and don’t consciously hear the sounds that are irrelevant to us.

There is some science that shows how the audible and visual features of a place interact to convey an impression.  Forty-four subjects were instructed to judge the tranquility of audio / video presentations of 11 relatively “tranquil” locations on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (very much), and that they should judge a tranquil environment as one that they considered a quiet, peaceful and attractive place to be.  The figure below shows the results.   Except for Otley Market and Building Site, the locations are primarily natural.  The combined audio and video presentation ratings show not only the interaction of the two, but that together the resulting tranquility rating is not necessarily an average of the two separate responses.  Broadly speaking, the audio for these 11 locations tends to either support the visual sense of tranquility or reduce it.  That is to say, a place can appear very tranquil, but the sounds can ruin that sense.  This degradation by incongruous sounds is more significant the more natural and beautiful is the visual.

Other studies have demonstrated that locations with natural sounds and landscapes can be restorative and that spending time there will actually clear your mind.  People’s problem solving is improved after spending time in a setting that is predominantly natural.

Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult to find places dominated by natural sounds.  The things we want (thanks for the idea Garret) – cars, planes, various recreational vehicles, leaf blowers – are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to get away from their noise. Even in natural areas you’d expect to be very quiet, it’s possible to hear a chain saw or small plane miles away.  Most ubiquitous are high-altitude jets; at six miles high, they can be as much as 20 dB louder than quiet natural settings; 20 dB louder is a lot – an intruding sound you couldn’t ignore.  And consider that the most beautiful natural places are the ones that most easily lose the sense of solitude and tranquility they convey when human sounds intrude.

I admit real quiet can be spooky for some.  If you’re a city person, enamored of the hustle and bustle, then maybe serious quiet might be unsettling.  But I have found, and I think most people will, that time spent in nature with little other than natural sounds can be a wonderful, memorable experience, later pleasantly recalled.

So Long Leo, the Last of the Three, and Thanks for BBN

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

By Nick P. Miller

I worked at BBN from 1973 to 1981. At the time, I didn’t know how much that experience would affect my life – my career, yes – but also the many friendships and experiences I would have. You can go on the web, and find as much as you could want about Leo and BBN, so what I want to briefly describe here is my personal experience at BBN, and how that laid the foundation for the rest of my career, which will soon draw to a close. I view this as a tribute to Leo and the company that he, Dick Bolt and Bob Newman created.


Dick, Bob and Leo

I developed my work habits, my sense of professionalism and the paramount importance of quality, and responsiveness to client needs. Some say BBN had an academic environment. I think it was better. The people I worked with were not competitive with each other, but only wanted to provide the best solutions to client problems. Importantly, the results of our efforts were not “academic” but were practical solutions that helped clients sleep better. We worked together in informal teams, the constitution of which changed depending on the challenge at hand. There was no question that anyone could contribute ideas for solving knotty problems. I loved that – still do.

Because of those experiences, Andy, Bob, Carl and I founded a company that was in our own image of the best of BBN. We worked together to bring in jobs, hire people, mentor the younger, less experienced employees and, as we wrote in our first brochure, “provide an environment that encouraged personal and professional growth.” Luck played a roll, I admit. When we began, “micro-computers” were just becoming available and made our tiny company look much bigger in the quality of the materials we produced. Competition was less at the time as well. We believed, do the best work you can (constrained by schedule and budget), and the work and money will come. And so it did.

The last two times I saw Leo were at conferences. At the 2005 Noise-Con / ASA meeting in Minneapolis, I was eating lunch in the hotel dining room and saw Leo in line waiting in for a table. I caught his eye, and waved him over and we had lunch together. As we sat, I asked what interested him the most these days and he said, not surprisingly, concert halls. He talked about some of his recent experiences and ideas. I said he should stop by HMMH and talk about his work. He replied (at 91 years old – little did we know) that he’d been over a few years ago, and we should wait a few more years until he had something new to talk about.

The second and last time was at the 2014 ASA meeting in Providence. Wherever he was, people flocked around him to talk. I was hoping to catch him alone because I wanted to convey a personal thanks. It was after lunch and I was wandering, wondering what session would be of most interest to me, when I saw Leo alone with his walker making his way to the elevators. I hurried over to him. “Leo, Leo”. He stopped to greet me. I said, “You probably don’t remember me, but….” He said “Sure I do Nick.” “I just want to say that my time working at BBN was wonderful and led me to a fantastic career and I want to thank you.” Obviously, he expressed pleasure with my compliment. I meant every word of it.

Thanks Leo.

So why are you complaining?

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

by Nick Miller

S'Martin- S'Mararten

Maybe one person’s noise is another person’s music. Train horns in the distance can have a kind of nostalgic sound, but people who live near a grade crossing may not think so. (Try a room on the back side of the Hampton Inn San Diego – Downtown. You might take your earplugs.) Find any newspaper article on the Internet about aircraft noise complaints, check the comments and you’ll find things like “These folks should have known they are buying near an airport,” or considerably snarkier. Which might be a reasonable remark except even knowing doesn’t translate to a real awareness of what living with loud aircraft overflights day-after-day is really like. Of course, what realtor or home owner is going to try to alert the prospective buyer to the reality of life near an airport?

Quite a few airports require that home buyers receive some sort of disclosure statement, but all the ones I know about are presented at the closing. A little late, don’t you think? The only possibly effective method I know of is attempted by DFW airport. They try to get realtors to send in home buyers, and DFW shows them large displays of where aircraft fly. Much better, I think, than telling the buyer their house is in a noise zone or is within some decibel value of a noise contour. Who’s going to understand that?

I feel quite certain that most people who buy a home in the near vicinity of a commercial air carrier airport (say within 1 to 5 miles, depending on specific location and the level of operations at the airport) are unaware of what it can be like to live there day-after-day, night-after-night. I find it quite interesting, however, that there is a predominant meme that posits house prices reflect the acceptability of aircraft noise (hedonic pricing method). In other words, people pay less for such homes because they discount the price since they will have to live with the noise. Using hedonic pricing assumes that the buyer decides what to pay because he knows what he’s buying. That’s fine for buying a 60-inch flat screen TV to replace a 20-inch flat screen. But I think it’s an inaccurate means of assigning a cost to noise, or “monetizing” aircraft noise so that it can be compared with other costs (e.g. air quality health effects) or benefits (e.g. accessibility to transportation) of living near an airport. Studies seem generally to show a reduction in house price of 10% to 12% per 10 dB increase in aircraft noise, beginning at some identified lower level where there is an assumed no effect of aircraft noise.

But does this method really reflect the “cost” of noise? Some argue that noise is a quality of life issue upon which no price can be placed – a problem common to many amenities, such as low crime rates, clean streets or green spaces. Another way of thinking about the cost of noise, if we must, is how community dislike of noise affects decision-making about airports. Think about the many years (decades even) that it takes to propose, approve, design and build a new runway or a runway lengthening. What are the costs of the many studies reported as drafts, revisions, and revisions of revisions and associated public meetings, to say nothing of the costs of delayed construction and travel delays due to insufficient air travel capacity?

Finally, here’s an incident I recall reading about, but can’t verify for certain. Someone living in Northeast Harbor, ME, didn’t like the sound he could hear of the local sewage treatment plant. He asked the town if they could quiet it, getting the reply that they didn’t have the money to modernize it. So he donated, I believe, $60,000 to help the town pay for the quieting. Whether accurately remembered or not, I believe the substance is correct, and this story suggests to me a possible short-coming of asking people how much they would be willing to pay for less noise. The answer probably depends on what resources they have available.

Some Stuff I Like to Think I’ve Learned

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

by Nick Miller

founders 2a

HMMH Founders (from left to right) Nick Miller, Andy Harris, Carl Hanson, and Bob Miller.

I began my career in acoustics, noise, and how people react to noise in 1973 after quitting the Air Force. Not that USAF was a bad experience – it taught me a lot.  After living with pretty liberal parents, and going to liberal universities and colleges for about 8 ½ years, I found I actually could like politically conservative people and shoot an S&W Combat Masterpiece with reasonable precision without really aiming.  But never mind that; it’s just that lessons for life are everywhere.

Anyway, I began at Bolt Beranek and Newman in Cambridge Mass, (BBN) and found myself in a liberal, open-minded organization where my group in environmental noise analysis and control was struggling to find the best ways to resolve or attempt to resolve the relatively new political issue of the public’s dislike of all sorts of noise – from factories to construction to race tracks to new parking garages to planes, trains and automobiles. We worked with and for the likes of Ted Schultz, Ken Eldred, Dick Bolt (testimony about the 18 minute gap in the Nixon tapes fame), Bob Newman, and other brilliant people of whom you may not have heard like Chuck Dietrich, John Shadley, Warren Blazier and other good guys.  Truly a great place to start a career and learn.

As BBN turned away from acoustics to computer workings like design of the internet, Andy, Bob, Carl and I founded HMMH in 1981 (guess what the initials stand for). It was, and continues to be, another great experience, if you can get past the initial stress of putting your house up as collateral.  I remember vividly the day we four with our spouses met with bank representatives and all signed papers tying the future of our homes to our future success (or failure).  Well, we actually succeeded beyond our dreams, had a heck of a good time working together, bringing compatriots in noise into the company, sharing ups and downs, and building a company of more than 40 people.  That may not seem large to most people, but for a boutique business, we thought – “Not bad.”

Andy was president until 1989, and then I was until 2004 when we handed leadership to Mary Ellen. Andy, Bob and Carl have all retired and I will be within a year’s time.  I’ve naturally started wondering what to do next, and what about my 40 plus years of experience?  Do I walk away and leave the battle field of political acoustics or not?  I’m leaning toward going cold turkey.  However, my son-in-law’s father pointed out how much experience, ideas and insights I would be taking away from the industry.

To get to the point, I have decided to at least write a series of blogs describing some of the things I’ve learned about noise and people, leadership and mentoring. This is perhaps a common human desire to pass on something of what one has learned in a lifetime career.  I’ve noticed that a number of old folks like to write books about their accomplishments.  I certainly won’t be doing that.  I’m not sure what I’ve accomplished, but I do know I’ve learned some things.  Also these things are not worth a book; I’m not going to do what I notice some authors do and take a few basic pieces of wisdom and use up 200 to 300 pages talking about them in different ways.

So, I intend to write a series of blogs over the next months. That is my intent, anyway.  I will start with issues of the discipline: noise and people’s reactions thereto in different contexts and to different sources.  This will be fun for me, anyway.